By Virginia Tilley
People are always getting US foreign policy wrong. For over two decades, people anxious about human rights violations in the Middle East, especially Israeli occupation, have regularly asked me, “When is the US going to do X, Y or Z?” When is the US going to put real pressure on Israel? When is the US going to live up to its rhetoric about democracy? When is the US going to stop supporting Arab dictators? The answer was always “never” but the question kept coming.
Especially among the Palestinian movement, the illusion was that, if the US really knew what was going on, it would “do something”. Vast amounts of activist work went into publicizing atrocities and trying to get the US foreign policy establishment to notice so it would “do something”. Of course, US analysts already knew what was going on and the US was not going to “do something”—for one simple reason: it was getting what it wanted from the situation—Israeli cooperation as a regional power and Palestinian political passivity. Yet the naiveté about US leverage and motivations persisted and political paralysis was the result.
Now that the people of the Middle East have had enough and taken power into their own hands, they are still getting US policy wrong. They are outraged that the US position has seemed wobbly, uncertain, vague or vapid and they are especially angry with President Obama. The US veto of the UN Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements (the last nail in the coffin for the “do something” crowd, hopefully) was greeted with scandalised denunciations, although it was always predictable. Even perceptions that US regional standing is withering, which it certainly is, have led people to get the US wrong. The Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas believes that diminished US regional power will prevent it from vetoing a UNSC resolution recognising the Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. This is entirely wrong.
There are three fundamental truths about US foreign policy that it is high time people in the Middle East grasp more fully.
First, the US is a world hegemon. Even with its credibility sinking and other powers rising, like China, the US comprises about one-fourth of the entire world’s economy by itself, controls most of the UN as well as the IMF and World Bank, and has vast influence over states everywhere. This factor has two effects that matter here. One is that US will not stop acting like a hegemon until it isn’t one anymore, which is still a long way off, and no political hegemon in history has ever acted altruistically. Especially, no hegemon has ever simply backed out of the affairs of a long-standing client and tossed its own hard interests to the wind in the name of human freedom. Human rights and democracy are optional to hegemons: they matter only where they impact the hegemon’s realist interests. And the driving interests of any hegemon are wealth and security: to abuse the phrasing of a famous Jewish philosopher, “the rest is commentary”. To expect a hegemon to behave any other way is futile fantasy.
The other inescapable effect of US global hegemony is global dependency on the US. It’s not just that no country in the world is immune from US economic clout, including both trade and technology (such as licenses for essential telecommunications and the like). More directly pertinent to Middle East events is that militaries the world over (with very few exceptions) are dependent on US spare parts to keep themselves running. The US need only cut off the spare-part spigot and the military forces of states around the globe will find their planes, ships and tanks dead in the water. Asking any state’s military to paralyse itself this way is futile. This dependency on US prerogatives is recognised by many today and indeed cited as the evil foundation of US global influence in propping up dictators. But it also means that the US has back-channel contacts around the world that are not part of the public rhetoric, and this is being overlooked. Second, the US is a democracy. Be warned, all ye lands: democracy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for good governance. It too can be hijacked by unprincipled populists to serve graft, inefficiency, corruption and greed, and this is what has happened in the US. For decades, the Christian right wing has infiltrated the US school system through its effective veto over school textbooks. Among other debilitating effects, this suffocating influence by religious bigots has furthered rampant popular ignorance both about domestic affairs and the rest of the world. Ignorance has made a large minority of the voting public bizarrely gullible to Republicans lies, nativist xenophobia and wild distractions—such as hysterical accusations that universal health care would result in “death panels” or that Islamic radicals are about to take over the Arizona legislature. Washington politics today reflects the terrible clout of this pro-rich sabotage of public debate. Real debate on urgent public issues is mostly impossible because it is derailed by fear-mongering about bogus threats. The old compromise climate in Washington and Congressional inter-party deal-making—the very heart of politics, “the art of the possible”—is infamously crippled. This dysfunctionality in Congress impacts both domestic and foreign policy because the US constitution places severe limits on presidential power: no president can govern without the will of the Congress. Today, with the right wing clamping down, latitude for policymaking by a liberal president is especially confined.
Previously, US presidents had relative freedom of action regarding foreign policy, which the US Constitution grants to the Executive branch. But here we face the third fundamental truth: the Zionist movement has sunk its bloody talons into US politics (and European politics) to a degree unprecedented for a hegemon in the modern world. As US professors Mearsheimer and Walt have famously warned (along with many others), Zionist lobbyists effectively control the Congress today on anything regarding Israel: partly through hard money and the real or imagined leverage to remove representatives from office, and partly by playing on the severe ignorance of Representatives and Senators about the way the world really works (fostered by the crappy school system). For some ninety percent of Congresspeople, the only country they have visited outside the US is Israel, on Israeli-government-sponsored propaganda tours. They are, as a consequence, dupes as well as tools of pro-Israel forces. As the president cannot pursue foreign policy without at least Congressional acquiescence, regarding the budget, this influence hamstrings any president regarding Middle East policy. The Zionist lobby has done the same in most of the fifty American states, so political influence outside of Washington cannot be brought to bear on Congress to correct the situation. Israeli intelligence, which is brilliant, has also persuaded the US security establishment of its indispensability to the point that US intelligence is regularly hijacked by Israeli lies (as the shameful nonsense about “Curveball” freshly highlights).
Worse, bullying and screaming by pro-Israel fanatics in the US media has converted all attempts at sensible debate about Israel-Palestine to circular arguments over distracting myths, which about twenty percent of the US electorate, wallowing in ignorance about the world, can’t follow. Hence a hefty proportion of the electorate remains saturated with endemic Israeli-Zionist and Christian-Zionist propaganda about sweet vulnerable Israel nobly defending the only democracy in the Middle East against backward anti-Jewish Arab hordes. Thanks to the blood, sweat and tears of the Arab peoples in the streets over recent weeks, this clamp on the American imagination about Arabs has been severely jolted. Let us hope it is fatally damaged. But popular US Zionism remains a problem that filters up to the White House through many channels, further steering policy on the Middle East. As a consequence of these three factors—hegemony, democracy, and Zionist-lobby subversion—Obama is circumvented in all options by the Democratic Party that he nominally (temporarily) leads. That party is dominated in Washington by a hard-core foreign policy party establishment that is (a) always compromised on foreign policy by lobbying by the military-industrial complex (and its individual members’ own personal financial investments in the security industry); (b) constrained by the Zionist lobby from taking any position objectionable to Israel; and (c) blind to its effective betrayal of true US national interests, due both to its venality and its members’ actual ignorance about the world. The Republic elite establishment is, of course, still poisoned by neoconservative lies that were disseminated during the nightmare era of Bush the Younger. But the Democratic establishment, reshaped by the Bill Clinton era, is also saturated with overt Zionists, pro-Israel propaganda and overt political dependency on the Zionist lobby. This bloc is emblemised by the gullibility of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has appalled people otherwise prone to support her since her earliest years as an independent politician, when she so shamelessly sucked up to Jewish-Zionist votes while campaigning for the Senate in New York State that she was lampooned by embarrassed Jewish late-night television comedians. Obama is surrounded by these people and their networks: just getting objective information is very difficult—although now, thankfully, a little easier because of the mass Arab uprisings and scandalised commentary now splashed across the world’s mainstream media. (See an interesting piece in the New York Times about the White House’s “Nerd Directorate”.)
On top of this, outsiders may not fully appreciate the special vulnerability that Obama faces as the country’s first black president. Of course, this factor is widely known but its depth is often not grasped. Here those disgusted with him might usefully pause from fascinated focus on Middle East uprisings to take a closer look at Washington politics—e.g., cruise the “Politics” section of the Washington Post over two or three days—to get a handle on it. His skin color alone sends about 20 percent of the electorate into racist heebie-jeebies. While the world sits glued to visions of Middle East democracy struggles, a horrifyingly large portion of US voters is still fastened like mad-eyed ferrets on Fox News debates about whether Obama was really born in the US and whether he is in fact a Muslim. The debasement of US politics is signalled by the horrible fact that idiotic Sarah Palin—a cartoon of a politician—is actually a serious force in US politics.
The result? President Obama is one of the most politically besieged presidents in modern times. The US economy is in emergency straits: he is battling to preserve even truncated health care reforms and faltering worker’s rights to decent wages against a torrent of unprincipled Republican lies and manipulation. He will lose all those battles if the Zionist lobby undertakes to undermine him. In any case, a US president is not as powerful as people think. The seeming latitude of Bush the Younger to radically alter US foreign policy—the neoconservative hijacking of US foreign policy to attack Iraq—was born along by the pro-Zionist tide created by the three factors above. Any effort by Obama to swim the other way runs smack against that tide. And all presidents must have their party establishment behind them. If Obama loses the Democratic party elite, he will fail on every agenda he now has on his desk, and he will lose that elite if he takes on Israel’s settlements or any other Israeli crimes. If he attempted a full-scale change of policy on Israel, Obama’s frail political boat would sink directly into the drink – and take his domestic agenda with it. Hence the Israel’s stranglehold on US foreign policy is translating into a fatal vulnerability by the White House regarding both foreign and domestic policy. Hence Obama spent desperate 50 minutes pleading with Abbas not to make him veto the UN Security Council resolution on settlements. The whole messy complex of US foreign and domestic policy in the Middle East has become conjoined.
So what does this mean for people scandalised by US policy in the Middle East? First, don’t expect foreign policy of the US hegemon to stop being concerned for stability (economic and security) and Israel. The concern for “stability” will never change—hegemons don’t change their spots—and the ruinous fixation on Israel won’t change until some catastrophe alters the US domestic electoral environment regarding Israel, which will be triggered by events outside the US if it happens at all. Second, don’t expect Obama to wave a magic wand and transform US foreign policy by himself. Every speech he makes—sincerely, I believe—about democracy in the Middle East is instantly undercut or contradicted by the foreign-policy establishment of Clintonian Democrats on which he depends for everything and he has very limited options to transform that establishment. Finally, recognise that namby-pamby public statements by the White House are not the full substance of US involvement in Middle East dramas. The White House has actually contributed quietly but powerfully to the relatively peaceful transition in Egypt by using all its backroom contacts—especially personal contacts between US, Egyptian, Bahraini military officers—to help preclude the open military repression that we now know Mubarak ordered unleashed and Egyptian generals were debating. The US is doing the same, hastily if late, in Bahrain. This isn’t close to what people want from the US but it has certainly reduced the death count. (Consider what is happening in Libya, where comparable hegemonic influence is missing.)
Rather than look to the hegemon to abandon and undercut its former dictator clients, we must look to the lesson of recent events. If there is any single glaring lesson from the present tectonic shift in Middle East politics, it is that the peoples of the region have immense power to transform the situation themselves. As a hegemon, the US is in fact neutral about human rights abuses; Obama and others may personally care about human rights, but as a state actor on the world stage the US is, again, concerned only about stability favourable to its trade and security. When the people themselves make repressive regimes unstable, then the US will back whatever measures restore that stability. Where democracy promises to make countries more stable, the US will support it. People in the streets, in other words, will reshape US foreign policy through their power in the streets and not by futile appeals to the hegemon’s (nonexistent) better nature.
The exception, of course, is US policy regarding Israel, where US policy is entirely destructive to stability. And this brings us at last to the lesson for Palestine—and this lesson is glaring: stop expecting the US to “do something” to change the status quo in Israel-Palestine. Corrupted by the Zionist lobby, US policy about the Palestinians and Israel will change only after the Palestinians transform their movement to demand full democracy and so compel the same overwhelming global sympathy that Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and other Arab countries are now reaping. When they do this, Zionism will stagger and fall under the weight of its own lies. For the main Zionist lie is that stability can be achieved through racist partition of the country (on its own terms). In fact, stability depends on justice, and justice and racism are contradictions in terms. As in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Yemen, South Africa and everywhere else, only one road leads to real freedom in Palestine: absolute rejection of ethnic/sectarian supremacy in any form, full democracy, unity, and equal rights for all. May the Palestinians seize that banner and shout it out on al-Jazeera and Twitter and Facebook like other peoples in the region. May they take to the streets in their millions, insisting on full rights in their own country, send several hundred thousand people over the hideous Wall with signs saying “We are coming home!” and restore justice to the land. I hope they do this soon, for their own sakes, and not wait for any party or “authority” to lead the way. But I must admit to praying they do it this soon also for the sake of US politics, foreign and domestic. For, through a strange twist of fate, US foreign and domestic policy has become intertwined in ways that make the future health of my home country just as dependent on the vision and determination of the Palestinian people to reject racist tyranny as is their own liberation.